05/01/2008 - 12:14

The NRC must see itself as a regulator first, not an industry booster

David Lochbaum wants to inject new blood into the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff to stiffen enforcement of its safety rules. The composition of NRC technical staff is not the problem--they are a professional lot, as good as you will find in the federal government. Not surprisingly, though, they are responsive to priorities set at the top--by the commissioners, and mainly by the chairman.

The problem is that while Congress created the NRC to be an independent safety regulator, from the beginning, the majority of commissioners saw themselves more as the nuclear industry's facilitators and protectors, pressing the staff to approve licenses and assuring the public there was nothing to worry about. For example, after the devastating 1975 Browns Ferry fire, the commissioners spent hours on the NRC press release because the chairman wanted to exclude the word "serious."

But this wasn't the whole story. Even if reluctantly, the commission generally approved its staff's safety recommendations. After Browns Ferry, it upgraded fire protection rules, and after the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, it approved much broader upgrades, and on the whole, enforced them. Later, during the Reagan era, the commission included retired admirals from the nuclear navy, who, although sympathetic to the industry, knew in their guts that lives were at stake when plant operators didn't follow rules; therefore, they were disinclined to suffer gross plant mismanagement.

This delicate balance between promotion and safety tipped radically in 1998, when, after getting what he called "outside recommendations," New Mexico Republican Sen. Pete Domenici, then chairman of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, threatened NRC Chairman Shirley Jackson with a savage budget cut unless she made NRC more industry-friendly. In his book, A Brighter Tomorrow, Domenici actually brags about privately confronting Jackson, who he says seemed stunned and pleaded for time. She soon, however, saw the light: "Since that meeting with Chairman Jackson, I've been very impressed with the NRC."

Jackson replaced experienced top managers with younger more malleable ones and hired Arthur Anderson as management consultant. The NRC ended the tough plant evaluations the industry disliked and introduced simplified, laxer ones. To give an idea of the effect, in 2003, the NRC gave the badly mismanaged Davis-Besse plant top grades in every safety category--just before it was discovered (fortuitously!) that a large chunk in its reactor head had corroded away. There is a direct line from that 1998 meeting in Domenici's office to Davis-Besse's close brush with disaster.

Andy Kadak has a gentle way of putting it: "It's true that the [NRC] has had lapses in enforcement of its rules by giving the benefit of the doubt to utilities." I'd say it has effectively become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's lobbying arm. This isn't only wrong; it's shortsighted on the industry's part. An NRC that lacks public respect is a drag on nuclear expansion. When problems are close to home, everyone wants tough safety regulation and full disclosure. Even Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe, ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, and otherwise a fervent defender of everything nuclear, came down on the NRC when he discovered it had kept secret a leak from a nuclear processing plant in nearby Tennessee. In a July 2007 letter to NRC Chairman Dale Klein, he put it pretty well: "I know that you share my belief that nuclear energy must play an increasing role in our nation's growing demand for energy. This will not happen unless and until the public and this committee have confidence that the commission will ensure public health and safety, and protect the environment."